Chameleons are a distinctive and highly specialized clade of Old World lizards with 202 species. These species come in a range of colors, and many species have the ability to change color.
An adult child of an alcoholic (ACOA) can be described as a chameleon. They change colors as a form of camouflage to protect themselves. They learn at any early age that if they can blend into the wall they may be able to avoid physical abuse. If they can be quiet they may avoid sexual abuse and without engaging they can avoid the emotional abuse.
Sadly, the abuse doesn’t come from just the dysfunctional parent. It also comes from siblings and anyone else who is close to the disease. Siblings can be more brutal than the drunk parent. And the lower you are on the totem pole the worse it can be.
By that, I mean the amount of older siblings you have is the amount of pain and suffering you will receive from them as well as your dysfunctional parent. If you have two siblings, than it’s doubled. I had three older brothers and the closer they are to me, the more pain and punishment they inflicted on me.
It was only natural for this to happen. The oldest one, got to know my parents before alcoholism took hold. He might have seen and witnessed some dysfunction, yet he had a normal and happy childhood. When brother number two came along, the drinking maybe increased and yelling probably intensified, yet it still was manageable. Plus the two of them had each other for support. To survive the beginning of this insanity and having only two years difference in age, it was easy for them to have their strongest support from each other.
Then brother three came along. The oldest was now 4, the second brother was 2, and now number three. As the family grew so did the events. Family vacations became a yearly getaway for everyone. The boys excited for two weeks in a cabin. Next to a lake where they could fish and swim. The long ride there created some stressful times for the parents and brother number 1 began to see that things weren’t as beautiful as they once appeared.
By the time brother 1 was 10 years old I was born. He was now old enough to realize that mom and dad, at times, drank to much. But he couldn’t grasp the idea that they were sick individuals. It had to be someone’s fault why mom drank. It had to be someone’s fault that made dad yell at mom. That someone had to be brother 3. No way could it be brother 2. After all they had been joined at the hip since birth and brother 1 could not trust anyone like number 2. With me being just a baby there was no way it was my fault, so the logical answer was that it had to be brother 3. And so the rift began. Brother 2 was caught in the middle. He had a sense of loyalty to number 1, yet he also felt parental to number 3. Brother 4? Me? I was in another family. The age difference between us made the brothers realize that it wasn’t cool to be with their baby brother.
Unknowingly, at the time, battle lines were being drawn. As years moved on, I began to comprehend what was taking place. The insanity went to a whole new level. Brothers 1 and 3 were constantly fighting, while brother 2 moved halfway across the country to avoid the wars. The parental wars went from bad to dark. Attempted suicides by dad. When he was wasn’t trying to kill himself, dad’s rage came out on the body of mom. Physical beatings. To heal from the pain she drank more… and more. She began hiding her scotch bottles in my closet – her own secret stash. No sharing with dad with those bottles!
As I got older, I tried to please my dad by having dinner ready for him when he came home from work. Pleasing mom, by lying to dad that she was sleeping because she was sick, not because she was drunk on her ass. Pleasing brother 1 by saying it was brother 3’s fault, while also pleasing brother 3 by saying it was 1’s fault. Brother 2? He was my idle growing up. What happens with idols? When the illusion of them being perfect is destroyed you move on to something else. I have not seen brother 2 in over 40 years. Yup I had become the perfect chameleon. Changing colors (feelings) to protect oneself. The sad part though was that with this change I lost myself. Scared to voice my own opinions and always craving for approval from others.
I also became full of resentment. The ones who never looked beyond my camouflaged colours became mean when I didn’t do what they expect of me.
Growing up I never received a weekly allowance. I rarely got any money. What money I got I usually stole from my parents or my brothers. One brother used to give me a dollar to wash his car on date nights. At first it was a big deal. Then after a few weeks I realized how little I was actually earning for the work I did and decided that he could was his own car! He didn’t like that idea and slapped me around in my bedroom and as he walked out of the room, he picked up a glass end table and threw it at me. I ended up in ER that night getting stitches in my knee. This was a fight that would never happen in a healthy family. This brother was not only feeling the shame thrown on him by our parents but also the shame from other brothers. His resentment, his anger, made me an easy target for his rage. Yet it was never because of our parents. The fingers pointed at each other but never them.
As the years have gone by, the patterns of our childhood still haven’t changed. All of us are either retired or nearing retirement. So time isn’t so precious that we can’t learn new things. Awhile back, I found an article about our home town that talked about the soldiers who died in the Vietnam War. I followed the link and watched a video on one of the young men who died from our town. I sent a link to a brother and told him the story. The next day he e-mailed me back saying he found two other stories about soldiers from our community. I asked him for a link and his response was to look it up – it’s right there.
That really hit me wrong. I am one who does still work. Hard work, exhausting work. I spent the time to make it easy for him but he couldn’t return a simple favour like that. The frustrating part is that if he knew how I felt about it, he’d shake his head, laugh and tell me to grow up. My feelings would have been thrown away like they have in that family since childhood.
Recently, it happened again and it is the reason for this ramble. With everyone in some sort of coronavirus lockdown, we all have more than enough time on our hands to learn something new. I was contacted about an article I wrote about seven years ago for a chance at appearing in a Chicken Soup For The Soul book. He asked if I could send it to him because he’s not that good on computers. Hey, I’m not your secretary. You’re not that good on computers? What a perfect time to learn! Anyway, if he can’t find the time to do it himself, why should I do it for him?
I know some would say it is trivial. But if you grew up in this environment and nothing has changed in over 60 years, why should I keep changing colors to please any of them? With that said, a couple of years ago my oldest brother passed away.
The last time we chatted was before Christmas in a series of e-mails. The context of those exchanges began to hit a nerve, so I never opened his last one. After his death, I opened it and in it he said that for what it is worth I did have a childhood filled with terror. A childhood that none of them could ever fully understand.
I waited my whole life to hear those words from any one of my brothers. I just wanted an acknowledgement that my childhood was hell. That the parents that raised my brothers were not the parents who raised me. Physically, yes they were. Spiritually, emotionally, mentally, they were not. Sadly, I didn’t open that one at that time. Kind of the story of my life growing up in that family – we will take things to our grave.